Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities

By John R. Bartlett | Go to book overview

10

PHILO, ALEXANDRIA AND EMPIRE

The politics of allegorical interpretation

Jonathan Dyck

I first became interested in Philo in the process of teaching an undergraduate course on Diaspora Judaism. What interested me about Philo was not the individual, the Jewish philosopher par excellence, nor the philosophical tradition of which he was a part - all important areas of inquiry in their own right - but rather what his work might tell us about the formation, maintenance and transformation of the cultural identity of Jews in the Diaspora. In other words, the questions I put to Philo were not necessarily his own, nor were they oriented, in the first instance, to understanding his individual achievement. My questions were and are the questions of a cultural historian for whom the Alexandrian Jewish community provides a striking example of the political and cultural tensions with which the Diaspora communities had to contend.

One of the more interesting dimensions of the cultural interaction between Judaism and Hellenism (broadly understood) is the tradition of allegorical interpretation that emerged in the Hellenistic period and that reached its culmination with Philo. My aim here is to explore the cultural and political dimensions of this interpretative tradition. Specifically, I want to explore the way in which allegorical interpretation as practised by Philo is embedded in the cultural politics of Alexandria on the one side and the imperial politics of Rome on the other.

This essay takes the form of critical reflections on David Dawson's cultural critical reading of Philo, using Daniel Boyarin as a third dialogue partner. Both scholars approach Philo from a cultural critical point of view but reach very different conclusions about Philo's aims.

In a chapter entitled 'Philo: The Reinscription of Reality', Dawson presents a quite astonishing thesis. 1 In contrast to more conventional understandings, 2 Dawson casts Philo in the role of the cultural revisionist whose

1 Dawson 1994:73-126.

2 The conventional view that Philo universalizes Judaism is found, for example, in Tcherikover 1957-64:55-78; and Collins 1986.

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